Nationalism in Indian thought

It is a popular myth that Nationalism is a concept alien to India and that it was brought to her shores in the imperial age. A reading of traditional Indic literature (Śāstras and Kāvyas) tells a totally different story.

Nationalism in Indian thought

In recent times, the concepts of patriotism and nationalism and those who have shown a proclivity towards them have attracted a fresh onslaught of heavy censure from several quarters in India (politicians, academics, card-carrying leftist intellectuals, and even some hallowed souls from that high seat of contemporary India’s highest object of veneration – Bollywood). Nationalism has been under constant attack, drawing negative criticism from historians, political philosophers and cultural theorists in India, right from the early days of its upsurge in the wake of British colonialism in the country. I shall briefly address some of these critics and their assessments of nationalism, resulting out of their varying political dispositions and cultural hues, later in this article. At this juncture, it will be pertinent to note in passing that multiple narratives of strong nationalistic fervours emanating from the resurgent native political nations (Maratha/Sikh/Vijayanagara), in the face of the colonialist aggressions of Mughal Empire/Bahmani/Bijapur Sultanate, leave behind hardly any trace of internal critique of these essentially nationalistic developments in pre-European India (save a few instances of treachery and treason from within their folds – which are anyway not so much of a resistance to the idea of nationalism).

The resurgence ultimately caused the downfall of the ruling Muslim dynasties in India. It must also be remembered that the great gurus and ācārya-s like Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja had traversed the length and breadth of the land, establishing their mutts in all four distant corners of the territory we call India – which significantly restored the spiritual-cultural basis of India’s national unity across different periods in the country’s history – a feat which has been achieved in the modern times only by Swami Vivekananda. The point, however, is that nationalism as an emotional and political ideal has existed in the pre-European Indian scenario without having to face a strong critique, either from within or from without. This was in contrast with the ceaseless denigration of India’s nationhood that took place later, after the  European ideas of nationalism took root in this land through educational “reformations” brought in by the British colonial government working in tandem with a few English-literate Indian individuals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Tracing and analyzing the instances of this existence of nationalism vis-à-vis patriotism as a cherished dharmic value in India’s sacred traditional literature is the main focus of the present exercise. 


The idea of nationalism has frequently been employed in the context of various ideologies not rooted in India’s dharmic values. Some writers, like Tagore, have even gone so far as to claim that nationalism is in direct clash with Indian values and ideals, and have interpreted the ideas of nation and nationalism prevailing in India, and the world, of his time as integrally linked with economic profit and the “race problem”. (Tagore 1918) Going by the dominant narrative floated and sustained by the majority within both Indian and foreign academia, one gets the general idea that the concept of nationalism is a foreign import into our land, sailing its way into the Mughal-ruled Hindustan aboard British merchant ships that carried not only the cheap textiles and other merchandise manufactured in the newly opened mills of Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Northampton and such other British towns but also the nascent concept of European nationalism. This nationalism, we are told, had emerged simultaneously with the disintegration of the feudal social structure of Europe and the rise of nation-states in its place, again thanks to the change in modes of production brought into the European scene by technological advancement. The most prominent manifestation of this phenomenon was the industrial revolution, of course.

This economic-historical narrative, pushed mainly by those political scientists and economic historians who dogmatically swear by the central Marxist idea that modes of economic production and changes therein are the sole driving forces of all human history, would have us believe that like most other epoch-making, grand ideas that changed the course of Indian history from the 19th century onwards that they find worth studying, nationalism too came into this land holding the hands of the foreign invader/coloniser. But does the claim stand the test of an honest inquiry? Isn’t there any trace of nationalism in ancient Bhārata-varṣa or at least, in the pre-British Hindustan?

Swami Vivekananda once famously remarked:

“The Indian nation cannot be killed. Deathless it stands, and it will stand so long as that spirit shall remain as the background, so long as her people do not give up their spirituality” (Vivekananda 1901).

So, what light do our Śāstra-s and Kāvya-s throw on this subject? Is there even the faintest inkling, an inception of the concepts of nation and nationalism in our sacred tradition and literature? Let us ruminate on the matter (pun intended).

Linguistic and Semantic Analyses

First things first – and therefore let us try and get at the root of the matter, quite literally. The etymological root of the word ‘nationalism’ is ‘nation’, which in turn stems from the Latin word ‘natio’ variously connoting:

1. ‘birth’ and  

2. ‘race’

The dictionary informs us that the word ‘nation’ is akin to Latin gignere – to beget – and genus; and also to the Greek term genos. The Latin genus, Greek genos and Sanskrit janan are cognate; as are Sanskrit jnāti, jāti and Latin gigneregnatus (> natus – past particple of nasci – to be born, i.e. natio). Often we may have wondered about the function of a ‘ja’ in the Sanskrit word jnāti (connoting gotrajāti – those related by blood – which made its way, uncorrupted, into several modern Indian languages) which seems like an anomaly; given its pronunciation which has a ‘ga’ sound instead of the ‘ja’ sound. One look at its Latin cognate and the mystery is resolved – the Latin word gnatus (plural gnati, connoting ‘children’) lost its ‘ga’ sound and retained only the ‘na’, making it natus from which ‘nation’ and eventually the word nationalism stems; whereas semantic transformative processes in our very own Sanskrit metamorphosed the ‘ja’ sound into ‘ga’ and retained the ‘na’ in the form of ‘ñ’ making it sound like ‘gyāti’ with a nasal touch over the long vowel ‘ā’.

This linguistic and semantic comparison highlights the affinity not only between two cognate words from two different sister-languages, but it also demonstrates the affinity between the idea(s) embedded in them; for beyond the mere phonological and morphological similarities of the cognates discussed above, they converge on a semiotic dimension as well. It is, therefore, highly likely that the idea of ‘nation’ and organizations such as a family unit are positively correlated. In fact, this truth embedded in human languages is supported by the political philosophy of Aristotle, who had demonstrated, by means of “imaginative reconstruction rather than by factual history […] the formation (a) of the pairs of husband/wife and master/slave, (b) of the household from the ‘pairs’, (c) of the village from a coalescence of households, and (d) of the state from a coalescence of villages. The ‘nature’ of a thing,” he claims, “is not its first but its final condition; just as an individual man is the natural end of the  process of human coming-to-be, so too the state is the natural end and culmination of the other and earlier associations, which were themselves natural; the state, therefore, exists by nature.” (Aristotle, Sinclair and Saunders 1981) Bringing Aristotle’s analysis into this discourse is crucial, since the semantic discussion that had taken place immediately before offering Aristotle’s insights here involved words from a language that Aristotle himself actuallyspoke (refer to genos); and hence the logos (the Ancient Greek term is being used here in its original sense of ‘word’ or ‘reason’) that is informing us is in the here and now of this discussion is the same logos that had informed Aristotle and that Aristotle had used to inform posterity. This juxtaposition, I believe, vivifies the present argument considerably.     

[Aristotle (382 – 324 BCE)]

Deconstructing the Dominant Narrative

The linguistic links aside, logos in its textual avatar holds important keys to deconstructing the dominant narrative about nationalism. Shri Madhusudan Dutt’s Meghnādavadhakāvya – a Bengali epic poem – is widely hailed as the harbinger of nationalism in the cultural expressions of “modern”, colonial India. Paradoxically, this long heroic poem, composed in Shri Dutt’s signature literary device, a heavily Sanskrit-inflected Bengali that made copious inventions in the use of verbs, traces the nationalistic (nota bene the words jñātitva  and jāti both find mention in the text below) values eulogised in the poem to our sacred literature – the śāstra-s, as illustrated in the following excerpt from the poem, which Shri Dutt himself categorises as a kāvya [Emphasis put in bold characters by me to illustrate the link between the text and dharma/śāstra as its moral-ethical-metaphysical basis]:

Kohila birendro boli; – dharmapathagami,

Hey rakkhoshrajanuraj, bikhyato jagate

Tumi; – kon dharmamate, kaho dashe, shuni,

Jnatitva, bhratritva, jati – ey shokole dila

Jalanjali? Shastre bole, gunavan Jodi

Parajan, gunahin svajan, tathapi

Nirgun svajan sreyah, parah parah shoda! (Dutt 2017)

Clinton B. Seely has translated the above passage in the following manner:

“that Indra among warriors spoke, “You who follow

dharma’s path, younger brother of the king of Rākṣasas,

are renowned throughout the world—according to what dharma,

pray do tell this humble servant, please, let me hear, did you

abandon all of these—your kin, your caste, your brothers? It

says in the learned books that even if outsiders are

with virtue and your people virtueless, still then your own,

devoid of virtue, are to be preferred—outsiders are

forever only that.” (Datta and Seely 2004)

Here, the point of reference to śāstra by Shri Madhusudan Dutt seems to be the famous assertion of the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā, that says:

Śreyān svadharmo viguṇaḥ paradharmāt svanuṣṭhitāt |

Svadharme nidhanaṁ śreyaḥ paradharmo bhayāvahaḥ || (Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā3:35)

This has been translated into English by Franklin Edgerton as follows:

“Better one’s own duty, (tho) imperfect,

Than another’s duty well performed;

Better death in (doing) one’s own duty;

Another’s duty brings danger.” (Edgerton 1994)

Interestingly, the kāvya of Shri Dutt mentions jñātitva as a virtue, a cherished value that one must uphold (the kāvya actually mentions dharma in this connection – kon dharmamate etc.); and such a moral-ethical value is empirically traceable to the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā dictum on what constitutes one’s svadharma (approximate English equivalent – own duty and/or nature). The spiritual-cultural complex that spawned Shri Dutt’s kāvya comes from the same ethos where the text of Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā is also located. The recurrent references to dharma (dharmapathagamikondharmamate) in the Meghnādavadhakāvya themselves speak volumes on the moral-ethical-philosophical basis of this great feat of nineteenth century Bengali literature; it never circumvents the virtue of upholding one’s own dharma – a value that has been so very precious to the billions of souls in this country for millennia and that is still taught (in fragments) to them as part of a character-building values education (of the ilk of apna dharamnibhao) till this day. Therefore, it becomes apparent that critics who sought to locate the Meghnādavadhakāvya within an essentially Western worldview of the European enlightenment and/or European nationalism, had seldom stopped to critically think about what the text really talks about; what are its intertextual references and how all those referred texts stand in relation to the Meghnādavadhakāvya, perhaps in their great haste to fit the text into their preferred, convenient frame of reference.      

[Michael Madhusudan Dutta (25 January 1824 – 29 June 1873)]


Understanding the motive of the approach that reads the idea of nationalism as non-autochthonous (i.e. not native) to India requires breaking down of the approach to its constituents. Desacralization, i.e. divorcing an object/idea from its original sacred metaphysical context, has been one of the main weapons of this approach towards nationalism. As soon as one is able to delink the sacred from the aesthetic and didactic functions of an ancient Indian text, one has been successful in desacralizing the text. The next step would be to highlight an imaginary (and often out-of-context) historical, political, social or psychological basis of the text by the help of the reader’s own interpretation, powered by the Derridan postmodern theoretical tools like aporia/deconstruction or Barthes’ “death of the author” purporting that invented out-of-context interpretation as the definitive exegesis of the text. Of course, this “critical interpretation” would fit a political agenda – making the poor text a victim of propaganda. So far the Rāmāyaṇa texts by Vālmīki and Tulsīdās has been, perhaps, the worst affected of all by this pernicious design of Marxist historians and many Indologists – in reality, philologists and orientalists pretending to do social pseudo-science and tending to be social justice warriors. It is really a remarkable achievement of these disciplines and their practitioners that they still thrive even after getting admonished severely by Nietzsche and debunked by Edward Said. Cases in point: Sheldon Pollock’s reading of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History and The Ring of Truth: And Other Myths of Sex and Jewellery. All these merit separate analyses, and we can hope to deal with them on other occasions should they arise.

Loyalty towards the Rāṣṭra: Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra

While discussing nationalism in the Indian context it is only pertinent to refer to Kauṭilya’s magnum opus Arthaśāstra, a treatise dealing with much more than just polity and statecraft. It is significant that Kauṭilya brings up the subject of loyalty while discussing the constituent elements[1] of a state, one of which, according to the Arthaśāstra, is the population inhabiting the specified territory of a state, which he terms the janapada. Elaborating on this particular constituent element, Kauṭilya prescribes that “[t]he people shall be predominantly agriculturists (artisans and craftsmen), devoted to work, honest, loyal and with intelligent masters and servants.” (Arthaśāstra 6.1.8) Now one needs to look carefully at the notion of loyalty prevalent in the Mauryan and pre-Mauryan Indian society. The Arthaśāstra itself mentions quite a few times in the text that a king (rājā or cakravartī samrāṭ) is not to be regarded by his subjects nor regard himself as the monarch absolute; it is rather a king’s duty to make sure that dharma abides in all the constituent elements of the state, in the administrative process and that he himself abides by dharma. Scholars have attempted to read the Aśokan edicts in the light of the Arthaśāstra, which is steeped in the Vedic values and worldview. Romila Thapar pits Aśoka’s dhamma against the varṇāśrama dharma, dubbing the latter as the “other” in a possible attempt to evoke a sense of hostility between dhamma and dharma (Thapar 2012). But let us not deviate from the issue at hand, which is loyalty in the Mauryan and pre-Mauryan era.

Kauṭilya attaches special value to loyalty and those who are loyal to the rāṣṭra (it is noteworthy that loyalty has been directed to rāṣṭra – the state, and not to the monarch); this is reflected in many of his instructions, such as this one: “the more loyal troops shall be saved leaving out the sharp and the greedy” in case a calamity, war or misfortune is imminent on the state. (Arthaśāstra 9.7.46 – 50) The Arthaśāstra thus prepares and offers a list of priority out of the seven constituent elements of a state discussed earlier. Loyalty and those who are loyal get to rank near the top of that priority list in the Arthaśāstra. That Kauṭilya’s instructions regard the state and its safety/prosperity above the king or anything else is made apparent by recurring warnings in the Arthaśāstra against a wayward king/prince, a favourite queen or mistress – all of which have been characterised as harmful for the state. All this portrays Kauṭilya as a patriotic political philosopher, who seems to be a pragmatist. However, Kauṭilya does not stop at this theoretical frontier of mere patriotism; he goes a bit further, bordering on the verge of nationalism when he shares his wisdom on the allies of a state. True, he gives the allies their rightful place among the constituent elements of the state; but they are ranked seventh, i.e. the lowest, according to his proposed order of priority. These allies are sovereign territories/states themselves, at all or most occasions with a sovereign monarch at the helm, which enjoy a friendly relationship with the concerned state (or are forced to be friendly with it under pressure due to its superior power). But at times of dire calamity/war/misfortune Kauṭilya’s advice is to forsake them, to not depend too much on them or place absolute trust upon them either, and at any cost secure the state’s interests before that of an ally. (Arthaśāstra 8.1.53 – 59)

Rāṣṭra and Jāti in Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra

The concept of state (rāṣṭra) and in parallel, the concept of nation (jāti) emanated from the narrower confines of kinship and expanded into a larger and more complex political unit – as has been propounded by Aristotle in The Politics. Now let us ask the question: what is the idea of the state, and how has it been conceptualized in the Arthaśāstra? The question can be rephrased in the following manner: outside the theorisation of the seven constituent elements and their order of relative importance, where exactly does Kauṭilya’s idea of a state exist? In an attempt to find a satisfactory answer to this query, we may raise another pertinent question: while one talks about the king’s duty or the duty/utility of any of the other constituent elements of a state, what is this duty/utility directed at? A careful survey of the Arthaśāstra gives one the idea that the state is an abstraction, which manifests itself in the seven constituent elements and their interrelations – maintained through meaningful economic, social and political activity in accordance with dharma. It has its roots in the specified concept of motherland (mātṛbhūmi) and the more general concept of land/earth (bhūmi/pṛthivī), where the janapada consisting of one or several jāti-s dwell, and both of which have been adored, revered and worshipped through the Vedic verses.

Nationalism in the Vedas

“Nationalism is a political religion which stirs the hearts and wills of men and rouses them to service and self sacrifice in a way that no purely religious movements have done in recent times.”

That is what Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s first Vice President and her second President, had to say on the subject of nationalism. But imagine: what if the value of a positive, broad-minded nationalism were already imbibed in the very morality and metaphysical knowledge-system of a people? Such has been the case with Hinduism – in fact since its very beginning – wherein chauvinism and supremacist ideas have not blurred the vision of a patriot who puts her nation first when it comes to protecting the nation from dangers facing it from within and without, as one protects one’s family and kin with utmost care and sincerity, representing it and being loyal to it. In such a duty of protecting one’s own lies the key to preserving oneself – in the entirety of one’s ideas, identities and one’s unique way of making sense of the world. We can call this unique way of making sense of the world ‘episteme’ (from the Ancient Greek verb epistamai signifying ‘to know’, ‘to understand’).

A careful look at the traditional Hindu family structure can elucidate the concept of loyalty and how the same has been extended to a broader context of an entire nation, jāti and rāṣṭra by way of both logical and emotional extension of the concept. This has actually been done to a great extent by the unbroken tradition of Vedic exegesis and the living dialogue between the metaphysics-morality-ethics of the Vedas on one hand and their continuous application in real life situations confronting the individual and the society on the other. As such the value of loyalty, be it directed to family, kin or motherland, is a derivative of dharma. We must be careful to make a distinction here between what is transmitted from realised knowledge of the ṛṣi-s, what is fixed in time and what has evolved over a period of time. The Vedic knowledge is a given canon, fixed ever since they were discovered through realisation of certain ṛṣi-s; the same is transmitted across generations through memory in a system that urges the recipient of the knowledge to ultimately realise it first-hand. Some methods of realisation are also laid down in the knowledge-complex itself, but it doesn’t limit the methods to them, innovation is encouraged. What evolves, changing according to time and space is ācāra, which are expounded in various dharmaśāstra-s. In this light, values that do not change are sva-dharma – a call of duty that is intrinsic to one’s personality in accordance with guṇa(quality) and karma (actions taken). (Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā 4.13) 

The AtharvaVeda contains the Bhūmi Sūkta, praises to the mother-goddess Earth. The 56th mantra of this sūkta prays:

Ye grāmā yadaraṇyam yāh sabhā adhi bhūmyām |

Ye saṁgrāmāh samitayasteṣu cāru vadema te || (Bhūmi Sūkta 56, Atharva-Veda12.1)

Swami Bhumananda Sarasvati has translated this mantra into English as follows:

“In villages, in woodland, in all assemblages, in wars (gatherings) and meetings of the peoples on the earth, we will recount the glories of the motherland.” (Sarasvati 1936)

The word ‘motherland’ used in the translation is only appropriate in light of the text of the Bhūmi Sūkta as a whole. The 12th mantra of the Sūkta says: “mātā bhūmiḥ putro ahaṁ prthivyāḥ” (Bhūmi Sūkta 12, Atharva-Veda12.1) – The land is the mother and I am the son of this earth.

The parallel drawn between the mother and the native land through linguistic signifiers helped perpetuate the identification of the two, made normative in the transmission of Vedic knowledge through memory and paramparā on one hand, and literary productions (and reproductions with variations) of this culture through numerous recurrences of such parallelism on the other, preparing the ground for the idea of Bhārata as mātā/mother.

Nationalism in the Ramayana and the Mahābhārata

Jananī janmabhūmiśca svargādapi garīyasī: is a dictum that many students in India encounter, or at least they used to, in their values education textbooks. Ever wonder where it comes from? Veritably it is the final pada(part) of a śloka from the Yuddhakāṇḍa in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. When after securing the victory over Rāvaṇa, Vibhīṣaṇa invites Rāma and his army into the city of Laṅkā and asks them to accept his hospitality for some time; Rāma speaks his mind to Lakṣmaṇa in response, expressing his restlessness in wanting to return to his favourite land of Ayodhyā:

Api svarṇamayī laṅkā na me lakṣmaṇa rocate |

Jananī janmabhūmiśca svargādapi garīyasī || (Shrimad Valmikiya Ramayana 2014)

– I find no taste even in the golden city of Laṅkā, o Lakṣmaṇa! Mother and motherland – these two are verily greater than the paradise.

Three parallels have been drawn in this single śloka: one between the city of Laṅkā and paradise, the other being that of the mother and the motherland each in contrast with the paradise, svarga, which are actually negative parallels – drawn to accentuate the former two in value in comparison with the later. The third parallel is between mother and motherland; which is perhaps one of the first instances of one’s native land – janmabhūmi – being portrayed as the mother in a parallel that is bound to remind one of the Bhūmi Sūkta of the AtharvaVeda which, too, addresses bhūmi (land) as the mother.

The point about literary recurrence and reproduction made earlier is worth repeating here. This will become more apparent in the next section of this article where an attempt has been made to trace the idea of India or Bhārata as a territorial entity – a country or homeland of a spiritual nation – existing not merely in the imagination of its inhabitants but also in definite, sacred geographical-cartographic knowledge of the people in the age of the composition of the great kāvya-s like the Mahābhārata. It will not be out of place to note here that Nepal, an erstwhile Hindu rāṣṭra has adopted the phrase “Jananī janmabhūmiśca svargādapi garīyasī” as their official national motto – appearing on the national emblem of the Himalayan country that maintains its sovereign existence with a staggering and thriving Hindu majority population.

Perhaps the most definitive mention and description of India in all of ancient sacred Sanskrit literature can be found in the Bhūmi Parvādhyāya (chapter of a Parva or book) of the Bhīṣma Parva of Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata. Of course, the name that has been used there is Bhārata-varṣa. In this chapter, the narrative takes off from Sañjaya recounting the many qualities of bhūmi or land:

Bhūmau hi jāyate sarvaṁ bhūmau sarvaṁ praṇaśyati |

Bhūmiḥ pratiṣṭhā bhūtānāṁ bhūmireva parāyaṇam ||

Yasya bhūmistasya sarvaṁ jagatsthāvarajaṅgamam |

Tatrābhigṛddhā rājāno vinighrantītaretaram || (The Mahabharata 1966)

 – Everything is brought forth from the land (i.e. earth) and dissolves into it in the end, the land is the sustainer and ultimate abode of all beings. The one who owns land owns everything that moves and remains still; for this reason kings kill each other in feuds over ownership of land.

After making this general observation on the centrality of land in man’s endeavours, Sañjaya goes on to describe the geography of the Jambu Dvīpa. He mentions the Himalayas, along with other mountain ranges and locates Bhārata-varṣa to the south of the Himalayas. He follows it up with a description of Bhārata-varṣa’s sacred geography, wherein he mentions the mountain ranges Mahendra, Malaya, Sahya (Sahyādri?), Śuktimāna, Rksavana, Vindhya and Paripatra; the rivers Ganga, Sindhu (Indus), Sarasvati, Godavari, Narmadā, Śatadru (Satluj), Vipāśā (Beas), Candrabhāgā (Chenab), Irāvatī, Vitastā (Jhelum), Yamunā, Gomatī, Kāverī and many more. Sañjaya compares the rivers with the mother for the infinite bounties they offer: this is important with regard to another ‘debate’ around the so-called novelty of the alleged ‘construct’ of the Bharat-Mata concept. Many historians, such as DN Jha, have contended that the idea of Bharat-Mata is a little more than a hundred years old (Jha 2016). This position can be put to serious challenge if one posits this reading of the BhūmiParvādhyāya of the Mahābhārata’s Bhīṣma Parva in juxtaposition with the Bhūmi Sūkta of the AtharvaVeda where again Bhūmi/Pṛthivī has been hailed as the mother for reasons which have striking parallels with Sañjaya’s narrative in this part of the Mahābhārata. For example, in the Bhūmi Sūkta too the mother-goddess Bhūmi has been portrayed as the bearer and final destination of all beings.

Sañjaya also mentions several provinces of Bhārata-varṣa, such as Kurupāñcāla, Śālva, Śūrasena, Matsya, Cedi, Daśārṇa, Pāñcāla, Kośala, Madra, Kaliṅga, Kāśī, Videha, Kāśmīra, Sindhu, Sauvira, Gāndhāra, Draviḍa, Kerala, Karṇāṭaka, Yavana, Cīna, Kamboja (Kambodia and other parts of South-East Asia), Huṇa (Han?), Pārasīka (Persia) etc. This description is fairly accurate as far as its comparison with modern cartography and knowledge of geography is concerned. This should put an end to the unreasonably long-drawn ‘debate’ regarding whether India – or Bhārata-varṣa as it is still called by Indians – had any existence in its present (and especially pre-1947) territorial idea or form before the British came and colonised it into an unified territory.

What is most noteworthy, as far as literary devices and narratives vis-à-vis patriotic and nationalistic sentiments reflected through them are concerned, is the laudatory idiom of the śloka-s that describe India here. Sañjaya has employed some exquisite commendatory adjectives while speaking of Bhārata-varṣa. Examples from the same chapter of the Bhīṣma Parva follow:

Atra te varnayiṣyāmi varṣaṁ bhārata bhāratam |

Priyamindrasya devasya manorvaivasvatasya ca ||

Pṛthośca rājanvainyasya tathekṣvākormahātmanaḥ |

Yayāterambarīṣasya māndhāturnahuṣasya ca ||

Tathaiva mucakundasya śiberauśīnarasya ca |

Ṛṣabhasya tathailasya nṛgasya nṛpatestathā ||

Anyeṣāṁ ca mahārāja kṣatriyāṇāṁ balīyasām |

Sarveṣāmeva rājendra priyaṁ bhārata bhāratam ||    (The Mahabharata 1966)

– Now I shall describe Bhārata-varṣa, o Bhārata [i.e. son of Bharata]! It [bhārata-varṣa] is the favourite of Indra and the other gods, and Vaivasvata Manu’s too.  Pṛthu, the son of Vena; the Mahatma Ikṣvāku; Yayāti, Ambarīṣa; Māndhātā; Nahuṣa; Mucakunda; Śibi of Uśīnara – all these great emperors, bull among the ruler of men, and many other great kings and mighty kṣatriya-s hold the land of Bhārata-varṣa dear too, o Bhārata!

Kindly note the juxtaposition of the greatness of all these mighty rulers of the land and the emphasis on how the great gods and kings alike hold the land of Bhārata-varṣa dear. Only the greatest of the great patriots among poets who evidently found his country better in comparison to other lands, and had no qualms in proclaiming its greatness, could produce such eulogies about his country. Vyāsa here has accomplished such a eulogy for Bhārata-varṣa or India through the narrator Sañjaya in no uncertain terms, right till the final verse of this chapter, the Bhūmi Parvādhyāya:

 Idaṁ tu bhāratam varṣaṁ yatra vartāmahe vayam |

Pūrvaṁ pravartate puṇyaṁ tatsarvaṁ śrutavānasi || (The Mahabharata 1966)

– This verily is the Bhārata-varṣa where we are present. It was here that all sorts of good deeds were introduced in the days of yore, which all others have heard of.

The Viṣṇu Purāṇa echoes similar sentiments. In H.H. Wilson’s translation:

“The country that lies north of the ocean, and south of the snowy mountains, is called Bhárata, for there dwelt the descendants of Bharata. It is nine thousand leagues in extent, and is the land of works, in consequence of which men go to heaven, or obtain emancipation. The seven main chains of mountains in Bhárata are Mahendra, Malaya, Sahya, Śuktimat, Riksha, Vindhya, and Páripátra. From this region heaven is obtained, or even, in some cases, liberation from existence; or men pass from hence into the condition of brutes, or fall into hell. Heaven, emancipation, a state in mid-air, or in the subterraneous realms, succeeds to existence here, and the world of acts is not the title of any other portion of the universe.” (Wilson 1840)

It is clearly visible what the text is doing: it is elevating the country called Bhārata-varṣa by highly extolling it through words to such a high pedestal (by virtue of the awe-inspiring extent of puṇya karma – good deed – accomplished in the land by great souls) where one is bound to be born eventually in their gyrating cycle of births and deaths, if they are to get rid of the cycle. In effect, the text is asserting that Bhārata-varṣa is that exclusivemetaphysical launch-pad where the Ātman must stand before it can release itself from saṁsāra.   

Hardly ever a nationalist poet/orator/politician of our times, who has to maintain a mainstream public life would claim such a thing – so boldly and so uninhibited – about their country without stopping to give it another thought. Not even in their wildest dreams where they dare put their country first.  
References / Footnotes

[1] According to the Arthaśāstra, there are six internal and one external constituent element (saptāṅga) of a state. These are: (i) the king; (ii) the group of councillors, ministers etc (the amātya-s); (iii) the territory of the state along with the population inhabiting it (the janapada); (iv) the fortified towns and cities (the durga); (v) the treasury (koṣa); (vi) the forces of defence, law and order and finally (viii) the allies – the external constituent element. (Arthaśāstra 6.1.1)


Aristotle, T.A. Sinclair, and Trevor J. Saunders. The Politics. London: Penguin Books, 1981.

Basham, Arthur Llewellyn, Brian K. Smith, Edward C. Dimock, J.A.B. van Buitenen, Vasudha Narayanan, and Wendy Doniger. Hinduism. August 5, 2017. (accessed August 5, 2017).

Datta, Michael Madhusudan, and Clinton B. Seely. The Slaying of Meghanada: A Ramayana from Colonial Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dutt, Michael Madhusudan. Madhusudan Rachanabali. Kolkata: Ashok Book Agency, 2017.

Edgerton, Franklin. The Bhagavad Gītā . New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1994.

Jha, D.N. “Far from being eternal, Bharat Mata is only a little more than 100 years old.” April 5, 2016. (accessed August 7, 2017).

Tagore, Rabindranath. “Nationalism in India.” In Nationalism, by Rabindranath Tagore, 97-130. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1918.

[Author’s note on translations: English translations of source texts, unless otherwise stated, are mine. I have tried my best to strike a balance between the overall sense conveyed by the source text and the literal meaning of words and phrases in them; inclining toward the former whenever a compromise has been necessary and absolutely unavoidable.]

About Author: Sreejit Datta

Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit happens to be an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres. He can be reached at: Email: Blogs:

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